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Psychological responses to the proximity of climate change

Abstract

A frequent suggestion to increase individuals' willingness to take action on climate change and to support relevant policies is to highlight its proximal consequences, that is, those that are close in space and time. But previous studies that have tested this proximizing approach have not revealed the expected positive effects on individual action and support for addressing climate change. We present three lines of psychological reasoning that provide compelling arguments as to why highlighting proximal impacts of climate change might not be as effective a way to increase individual mitigation and adaptation efforts as is often assumed. Our contextualization of the proximizing approach within established psychological research suggests that, depending on the particular theoretical perspective one takes on this issue, and on specific individual characteristics suggested by these perspectives, proximizing can bring about the intended positive effects, can have no (visible) effect or can even backfire. Thus, the effects of proximizing are much more complex than is commonly assumed. Revealing this complexity contributes to a refined theoretical understanding of the role that psychological distance plays in the context of climate change and opens up further avenues for future research and for interventions.

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Acknowledgements

A.B. was supported by a grant from the Swiss National Science Foundation (P2SKP1_158706). S.D. was supported by the European Research Council under the 7th Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013)/ERC Grant agreement no. 284369 and by the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) for the Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy (CCCEP).

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A.B. wrote the first draft of the paper. All authors commented on the paper and refined it in response to the peer reviews.

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Brügger, A., Dessai, S., Devine-Wright, P. et al. Psychological responses to the proximity of climate change. Nature Clim Change 5, 1031–1037 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2760

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